Holm Sundhaussen has accomplished something that others can only dream of. His “Geschichte Serbiens: 19. – 21. Jahrhundert” (History of Serbia: 19th – 21st Century) has triggered a broad social debate. But not in Germany, where the professor at the Institute for Eastern European Studies of the Free University Berlin ? rst published his 500-page work in 2007.
In the German-speaking world, Sundhaussen’s first comprehensive overview of the modern Serbian state has largely been sparking interest within academic circles. But when the daily Danas began publishing a series of excerpts from the Serbian translation in October, the book sparked an outcry in Serbia itself.
Clearly, a majority of the Serbian population and historians in the former Yugoslav state believe that foreigners are incapable of understanding Serbia. Germans least of all. One reader left a telling comment in the Danas Internet forum: “We were on opposite sides in both World War I and II. In the first war you (Germans) obeyed the Austrians and in the second one, you wanted to correct some mistakes. In Kosovo, once again, you were front and center.”
Claiming that a foreigner cannot treat the history of a country objectively because of his country’s own history really is “a strange argument at the beginning of the 21st century,” Sundhaussen said in an interview with Vreme magazine. Especially since, as this expert in southeast European history knows, far from being uneducated rabble, the readers of publications like Danas and Vreme are actually part of what one would identify as Serbian educated elite.
What did Sundhaussen write about Serbia’s history that has so upset the country’s cultivated urbanites? Of course, most Serbs know that the aggressive nationalism of Slobodan Miloševic led to the destruction of Yugoslavia, the wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, about 300,000 deaths – and ultimately the defeat of Serbia. Yet the established fact that the wars were planned and controlled from the Serbian capital Belgrade and that the government ordered crimes such as the mass murder of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995 has yet to be internalized in the heart of Serbian society, even 14 years later.
Many Serbs believe their state was the victim, not the agent, of Yugoslavia’s breakup. After 45 years of communist and 13 of nationalist dictatorships, that may be no great wonder. Guided by historians who researched and wrote what their masters wanted known, the population learned to see history from the perspective of its own (good) national collective. Today, nine years after the fall of the regime, most Serbs’ “brain mapping” still distinguishes between “us Serbs” and the world of enemies surrounding them.
A society molded by ideology typically responds with suspicion to the questions and the methods of a modern historian like Sundhaussen. And not only in Serbia: other aspects of the Berlin historian’s research found a comparable reception in Croatia.
Elsewhere, Bulgarian media branded one of Sundhaussen’s doctoral candidates an “enemy of Bulgaria” because her research raised questions about a 19th century massacre central to Bulgarian national pride. Albanian President Bamir Topi called Swiss historian Oliver Jens Schmitt’s biography of Albanian national hero Skanderbeg a “miserable attempt” to reduce the great man’s standing.
“Although it is not my area of specialization, I have always dealt critically with the German past,” said Sundhaussen. “Therefore, I am the enemy of the Germans as well as the Serbs, Croatians and Bulgarians. A historian’s job includes making sure that the past does not become an instrument of politics.”
Sundhaussen is aware that the exploiting of the past has hurled Europeans – not just the Serbs and other ex-Yugoslavs – into catastrophe. The historian, born in 1942, says there is the same “blockade of perception” in southeastern Europe that he is familiar with from his own, German experience.
The recent debates surrounding the Prussian Trust and the Center against Expulsions in Berlin may have been the ? nal consequence of World War II – more than 62 years after it ended. The discussion raised by German-French and German-Polish history books shows that subjects like the Napoleonic Wars and the partitions of Poland still preoccupy EU citizens centuries later.
“In Germany, it took a quarter of a century for the majority of the population to grasp what had happened during the era of National Socialism,” Sundhaussen said, serving up some food for thought in Vreme. “And even today some people still understand none of it.” To ? nd its place in the present, Serbia needs even more debates like the one the Berlin historian’s book has triggered about its past.
History of Serbia: The 19th – 21st Centuries Holm Sundhaussen, “Geschichte Serbiens: 19. 21. Jahrhundert”, Böhlau Publishing House. Vienna/ Cologne/Weimar, 2007. € 59.00 Holm Zundhausen, “Historija Srbije od 19. do 21. veka,” CLIO. Belgrade, 2009. € 25.00